Over the past 18 months, HR professionals in the hospitality industry have seen both ends of the spectrum. They have gone from SARS-era hiring freezes and retrenchment to today's widespread optimism about recruitment prospects for 2005 and the need to guard against the loss of key personnel.
"With new hotels opening and the many developments in the tourism sector, we know our staff will be a target for other employers," admits Sonia Lau, director of human resources for The Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong. "However, we have strategies in place to minimise the problem and are also planning further recruitment of our own."
Ms Lau can obviously plan from a position of strength. Most employees think twice about leaving a five-star hotel, which caters for business executives and is part of a fast-expanding international chain, even when offered better compensation and benefits by a competitor.
"We do still benchmark on remuneration," says Ms Lau, "but regard staff retention as something which depends more on other factors. These include training, creating long-term career opportunities, and helping employees to find the right work-life balance."
With this in mind, the hotel has adopted a number of forward-looking practices. For example, all of the roughly 300 staff are expected to learn one new thing per day and time is specifically scheduled at the start of each shift to allow them to do so. This might be about the work of another department, the overall tourist industry, or new properties within the group.
"Recently, we have been telling staff about the amenities in our new hotels in Florida and Guangzhou," explains Ms Lau. "This information can be passed on to interested guests and also ties in with our policy of wanting all employees to be business-minded. Now, if they hear that someone is travelling to Guangzhou, they can make an informed recommendation and are well equipped to answer any questions."
Such knowledge about group developments elsewhere can also provide ideas about career options. The hospitality industry traditionally encourages international experience and works on a system of arranging job rotations to make this possible. As Ms Lau points out, "Our expansion in China will see several new hotels opening in the next two years and we are already assessing how Hong Kong will support them in terms of transfers."
Recognising that consistently high service standards depend on the performance of each employee, the Ritz-Carlton pays particular attention to staff welfare. "The work can be physically tiring and, of course, there are some guests who require extra attention," says Ms Lau. "So that staff can show 'positivity' at all times, we have set up membership programmes with fitness and yoga centres plus arranged other health-related benefits. These help people to maintain a balance and to project a friendly image whenever they are on duty."
In fact, a positive outlook is a key quality looked for in all new recruits. It is one of eleven specific characteristics, identified with the input of a top consultant, seen as essential for anyone to fit successfully into the hotel's corporate culture. These range from being service-minded and accurate to accepting individual authority for making decisions.
"Our recruitment criteria are very clear," notes Ms Lau. "We are mainly looking for 'natural ability', such as the right values, and use specific selection tools to find the right people." Not many candidates match those criteria: around 2,000 applicants were interviewed to fill just 20 new positions in 2001.
Academic qualifications, particularly in tourism-related courses, can make a difference. Ms Lau cautions, however, that practical experience is just as important and, to provide assistance in this respect, the Ritz-Carlton is partnering the Hong Kong Polytechnic University and other tertiary institutions by offering student internships for up to a year.
"With the industry set for growth, we are always happy to give career talks on campus, arrange hotel visits for students and find places for interns," confirms Ms Lau. "Just this week, we have confirmed a full-time position for a current intern and would hope to do the same for others in the future."
Tourism qualifications much in demand
As the local tourism industry has bounced back after the slump of 2003, demand for related academic courses at every level from higher diploma to PhD has correspondingly soared.
"Tourism is a significant part of Hong Kong's economy and offers excellent job prospects," says Professor Kaye Chon, chair professor and head, School of Hotel and Tourism Management at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU). "People interested in a career in the sector realise that good qualifications are the best way to get ahead."
Competition for places on PolyU courses has never been tougher. There are currently 1,100 students, mainly taking the popular higher diploma and BA Honours courses in hotel catering and tourism management, and up to 60,000 applications are received each year.
This can largely be attributed to the strength of the curriculum. It is approved by the World Tourism Organisation through a TEDQUAL (tourism education quality) programme and is recognised for its consistency in matching the highest international standards. Around 25 industry executives sit on the school's advisory committee to review the curriculum regularly and they ensure its relevance in all respects.
"Our objective is to give students an overall competency in the tourism and catering sector with specialised knowledge in one area," says Professor Chon. Focus areas include theme parks, aviation services, conventions and events, and food services, each of which requires particular management skills.
In most cases, these skills can quickly be put to the test in a work environment. The PolyU promotes "work integrated education" and arranges for students to spend from 3 months to a year gaining practical experience with an employer. The scheme can also lead to month-long placements overseas as exchange students.
"These exchanges provide exposure to different cultures and help students improve their language skills," says Professor Chon. "We know there will be many job opportunities in the tourism sector, but those two factors will mark out the best candidates."